I did not meet my husband at the Blue Hill Fair, the fair where Wilbur was extolled with the spidery writing of “Some Pig,” one of the last country fairs in Maine. But I might have. It would have happened at the Dairy Goat Event, if we had only known.
We had actually met a few weeks later. IRCUG, as crunchy a computing society as you are likely to find, sponsored the event. I was a presenter (how data is encoded on 5 1/4” floppy disks) and he was a vendor (hardware and software). Noel “Paul” Stookey had launched his educational bulletin board. The Lab was trying to figure out whether a T1 line was worth the expense. It was 1988, the internet barely existed as a remnant of USENET; the World Wide Web would be born a year later.
We were granola and we were tech. We loved the same fairs. We were like toddlers at parallel play. The Blue Hill Fair was the first one we attended, just not together. Each of us took breaks from the mayhem of the midway, at opposite ends of the bleachers, to have lunch, and to try and fathom what a “correct front end” might be. A “proper full udder” was clear, as were comments on straightness of spine, size and stance of ears, and squareness of leg. Each of us was aware that this was the fair made famous by E. B. White. He was there because of that connection. I was there because I had promised my dad I’d bring him something from the Fair.
My dad was in the hospital, recuperating from his first cancer operation. I bought him a cow stuffed with straw (he clung to the tail through his morphine nights), at the far end of the undercroft of the Grand Stand. The vendor sat in a tiny space on the outside wall, at the end of the Grange displays. There must have been a dozen or fifteen granges represented that year. Each was set up with patriotic flags, themed around kitchens, or country stores, or farm life. There were canned vegetables, crocheted doilies, quilts, glossy loaves of bread, little model school houses and barns. There were caned chairs with needlepoint cushions. The hunting trapping association was wedged into a small section of the inside wall opposite the cow vendor. The center display was crammed with vegetable mounds and giant pumpkins. At the opposite entrance the Ladies’ Auxiliary was doing a brisk business in strawberry shortcake.
We went to the fair, together, yesterday, as we have for the last twenty-four years. We again ate lunch, this time watching the year-old heifer class being judged. Instead of eight animals in the ring, however, the most any one class showed was two. The kids presenting the animals were still neatly dressed in white shirts and khakis. The animals are still puzzlingly “correct” in various aspects of form, but there just isn’t the competition to pass out more than blue, and the occasional red, ribbons.
“Zuckerman’s Farm” is there, the petting area where our kids got to touch their first pigs, ducks, sheep, and goats. We now have our own pigs, and our daughter tended them for a week on her own this summer. They seemed much less fun than Zuckerman’s, so she bought them a big blue ball and lured them to frolic. They were much easier to feed when fun was away from her shiny new boots.
The livestock barns are still occupied, but every year, since the swine or bird flu scares of the nineties, farms seem to drop out of display. Still, there are those piping voices asking the age old question, “Why is that cow an ox, Daddy?” along side the bright new one, “Why I gotta use hand sanitizer, Mom?” Oxen, horses, and tractors still pull heavy objects, only now they are cement blocks lifted onto the sledge with a front-end loader, instead of logs and metal weights hoiked into place by burley men. There, too, the competition has thinned out. Whether this is because people are forgoing the expense of transporting their animals to the fair, or whether there are fewer farmers and breeders, I can only imagine.
The food court has changed as well. Among the “Bloomin’ Onion” booths, fried dough vendors, and cotton candy machines, there are healthy choices. Thai food is sold, something no one in Downeast Maine had even heard of in 1988, except maybe at the Common Ground Fair. There are “Walking Sandwiches” made with lots of veggies in a pita pocket. The old stand-bys of sausage and onion sandwiches, burgers, and red hot dogs are still plentiful. I got my apple crisp with ice cream from the Civil Air Patrol booth.
When we first went to the Fair, all those years ago, it was filled with strangers. In the years since, I recognize students I have taught, some of them pushing their own children around the Fair. I have pictures of my now adult children, hands flung wide, on the merry-go-round, taken by friends and colleagues. I know the politicians that campaign, some of them my neighbors. This year we caught up with the guy who had built our house where he was demonstrating post-and-beam construction with Japanese cutting techniques.
We walked through the Fair, holding each others hands. We’ve been able to do that ever since our kids got old enough to wander the fair with their own friends. We have our traditions. We still go look at the kids’ art in the far pavilion, even though we know none of the entrants any more. We check the honey entries. None this year. We chat up the tractor dealers and buy our 4-H Beef tickets. There are the activities we are happy to have let pass. I no longer have go through the climbing maze following a three-year old. It’s been years since we had to line up for the pony rides. Those are gone now, as are the coin-pusher machines, and the craft vendors. Aunt Rhodie’s wagon, the last of the yarn sellers has not been seen for years.
I am sure some of these have gone to a more commercial rendition of the Common Ground Fair, since it moved to Unity. There are certainly more people participating in the Open Farm circuit, bringing potential customers to farmers’ doors. I know the Blueberry Festival in Machias has gone from being a one-street event to spread out among three large parking lots and line two streets, flowing down the causeway. Southwest Harbor, Bar Harbor, and Ellsworth all have craft and agricultural events, to say nothing of increasingly robust farmers markets. The same kind of deals are no longer done at the State Fairs.
Andrew and I stick closer to home as well. We’ve found a place we like. When we go on day trips now, it is with an eye to remembering, than searching.